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What Makes a Great Learning Space?

What is it that makes a great learning space? Some experts would have us believe that learning spaces need state-of-the-art audio-visual systems connected to worldwide networks. Others seem to think that if you can move the furniture around, you can create something special. It was these multiple points of view that inspired us to embark on a study we titled “The Dynamics of Place in Higher Education.” Built on the thesis that inspiring learning environments are built from a complex mix of factors, we set out to hear from students, educators, and administrators so we could start to understand this diverse mix of people. We discussed trends impacting the teaching/learning experience, pedagogy, and physical space factors.

The results of our research can be found in our white paper titled No More Teachers, No More Books? Reading between the lines, what really rose to the top for me was that these groups are all seeking some level of engagement when it comes to learning spaces.

But what does “engagement” mean in this context? For students, they want to be able to come to a place that gives them multiple ways to interact with learning material they probably read on-line the night before. They want to sit with a group of peers with a cup of coffee and discuss material before class. They want to take it apart and put it back together with the guidance of a like-minded professor. They want to find ways to apply it to real-world experiences. And while all this is going on, they want to be inspired by the spaces they are working in.

In many ways, educators want the same things. A rising crop of professors understands that new tools can enhance their relationships with students, and this is causing them to adjust their approach to material. For professors, simply getting through the required curriculum will not matter if they have not gotten students to connect with it at a visceral level. As one educator put it, “We are all looking for a tactile learning and teaching experience.” Note the use of the word “all” in that sentence.

Administrators are coming to understand all of this, as well as the fact that college programs are allowing students to become “curators” of their own education. They need to manage space differently to allow this to happen. The days of simply matching bodies to seats are coming to a close. Instead, administrators need to use an extended definition space that goes beyond seating capacity, and engage with educators to define an experience map that aligns with program and educator goals.

The implication of all of this is that space can now be thought of as the palette of materials with which administrators, students, and educators can curate the educational process. And it is this curatorial, student-centered process where engagement occurs. And through this engagement, institutions, with the help of their internal and external planners, have an opportunity to create inspiring, engaging, and effective learning environments.

Mark Thaler is one of Gensler’s Education Practice Area leaders in the New York office, develops education projects at all scales, from classroom to campus. Mark has a passion for creating learning spaces that inspire, and collaborates with his clients to create these environments. Interested in Gensler’s education research? Send Mark a note at mark_thaler@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (3)

This aligns with my own research into corporate sustainability leadership, with regard to design thinking. It's surprisingly "all new" to start seeing each stakeholder as key to the original development process - like you mention here - but it shouldn't be! Learning/education has never been a top-down endeavor, nor has business/leadership - but we are so acculturated to that. Break away from those inappropriate guiding assumptions and watch collaboration and innovative partnering take hold.

Your work is really interesting, Mark. I look forward to learning more.
07.28.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Learned
a space which encourages collaborative learning, team work, creative, vibrant and flexible space incorporating the current need of technology, that could be set-up in various different learning situations from conferencing to test situations etc.. And has a great feel of motivation to focus, learn and work, rather than dull dark doom environment which motivates to sleep!
10.20.2011 | Unregistered CommenterChitra Patel
On April 17th, Mark and I presented the research findings and status of a follow up phase two study at the SCUP Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference at Penn State University. The panel discussion also included great insights from two faculty members, Dan Fogel (Wake Forest University) and Larry Casey (Georgetown University), who participated in our roundtable discussions last year. Later this spring Gensler will publish our phase two findings which solicited feedback from 250 students using a mobile survey. You can find our presentation link below and be sure to check back soon as we continue the conversation about creating meaningful learning spaces.

04.19.2012 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Rydell

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